The Time Activists Tried to Destroy GPS With an Axe in the 90s

Illustration for article titled The Time Activists Tried to Destroy GPS With an Axe in the 90s

If you had heard of GPS in 1992, you likely heard about it because of the Gulf War. For the first time, GPS was used to precisely guide missiles to Iraqi targets. With this context in mind, it perhaps makes more sense why two activists would want to hack a GPS satellite to pieces.


Over at the Atlantic, artist and writer Ingrid Burrington (who also made this delightful guide to internet infrastructure) has written a fascinating reflection on GPS's origins.

Today, most of us can't imagine living without GPS, a benevolent security blanket that keeps us from ever getting lost.

But hindsight is 20/20. In 1992, it was less obvious how useful GPS would be for your average citizen. What was obvious was how useful it was to the military. The program that developed what became GPS was originally called the Defense Navigation Satellite System (DNSS).

Enter the "Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade," an act of civil disobedience that Burrington describes in her piece for the Atlantic:

On May 10, 1992, the activists Keith Kjoller and Peter Lumsdaine snuck into a Rockwell International facility in Seal Beach, California. They used wood-splitting axes to break into two clean rooms containing nine satellites being built for the U.S. government. Lumsdaine took his axe to one of the satellites, hitting it over 60 times.

They were arrested and faced up to 10 years in prison for destroying federal government property, causing an estimated $2 million in damage. Ultimately, Kjoller and Lumsdaine took guilty pleas and were sentenced to 18 months and two years in prison respectively for an act of civil disobedience they named "The Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade."

Burrington also tracks down Lumsdaine, whom she asks to reflect on his act of civil disobedience two decades earlier. Lumsdaine is completely unrepentant, but his stubbornness also belies a piece of wisdom: We can't be blind to the origins, unpleasant as they may be, of the technologies around us.

Read the full piece at The Atlantic.

Top image: GPS Satellite. U.S Government




The author of the Atlantic article misunderstands how GPS works:

I don't pause to consider how that blue dot on a screen is a function of at network of multi-million-dollar satellites in space sending signals to and receiving signals from my phone

GPS satellites do not receive signals from cell phones, period. The GPS (and other GNSS system) satellites send out a one-way signal. They do not track your phone, they do not detect your motion, and they don't even know if your phone is using the GPS system.

Your phone does not send signals to GPS satellites. For one thing, your cell phone doesn't have anywhere close to the signal power to transmit radio waves to satellites 12,500 miles above the surface of the earth. Think about it: cell phones are built to talk to towers a up to only a few dozen miles away. They would need massively more powerful transmitters and batteries to send a strong signal up 12,000 miles (that's why satellite phones are so chunky - and satellite phone satellites are only 500 miles up).

All GPS satellites do is send out a highly precise, synchronized, one-way time signal. Your phone's GPS chip just "listens" for the GPS signal until it picks it up from at least three orbiting satellites. Because those satellites are at different distances relative to the receiver (your phone), the signals come in at slightly different times (even if they are traveling at the speed of light). Those differences allow the receiver itself (NOT the satellites) to calculate the distances between the receiver and the satellites, and by simple triangulation (high-school level math), the receiver's location in three-dimensional space (i.e. your latitude, longitude, and altitude on our semi-spherical planet).

If you're wondering why GPS can be used to "track" someone's phone... all of that work is done through regular on-the-ground cell towers, 3G/4G data networks, and Wifi connections. Once your phone calculates its own position based on the one-way GPS signals, it then transmits that location information on a cellular or wifi data network - NOT back through the GPS satellites. If you have no cell reception or wifi, your location information isn't going anywhere.

By the way, this is why you can't just "track the GPS in the phones of passengers" on missing Malaysian aircraft over the ocean. Those passengers' phones - if they didn't turn them off - DID know exactly where they were located when those planes crashed. But because there is no cell phone or wifi reception over the ocean, the phone couldn't transmit its GPS-calculated position to anyone except the person reading those coordinates right off the screen.